Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The taste of victory: North Central students head to national culinary contest

Elina Khadka used a chef’s knife to cut basil rapidly, as Arlen Everman-Jones shaved asparagus stems.

Nearby, teammates Allison German and Elisa Wilbur quickly prepped other ingredients during a Thursday practice inside Spokane’s smallest kitchen for high school culinary classes.

With a recent first place win in a statewide contest, the four seniors at North Central High School qualified to compete in the April 26-28 National ProStart Invitational in Baltimore, where they’ll be judged for their culinary skills by industry professionals.

Like in TV cooking shows, these students and about 400 competitors from nationwide high school teams will have the challenge at nationals to make a three-course meal in 60 minutes while using only two butane burners and no running water or electricity.

North Central’s team is the first culinary student group in Spokane Public Schools to qualify for the ProStart invitational, said their teacher Kim Stewart, who plans to go. Also traveling are mentor coaches: Wild Sage Bistro managing partner Garth Hicks and Deontae Johnson, a Steam Plant cook and North Central culinary graduate.

“They’ve got this,” Johnson said, watching the students practice. “There are some practical parts to this, like if equipment breaks down, they can think, ‘Oh, I can do this instead.’ ”

The four students will get scored on not just taste and food presentation, but organization, sanitation, safety and other restaurant standards. The top 10 teams placing at ProStart nationals win scholarships from restaurant industry groups and event sponsors, Hicks said.

Everman-Jones was on North Central’s ProStart team for the state competition in 2022, when they took third place. Other SPS schools with ProStart programs include Lewis and Clark, Ferris and Rogers.

“This year, we went to the state ProStart competition held in Renton, Washington, on March 16,” Everman-Jones said. “We started practicing in November, and we really just perfected our menu. We designed our menu. We priced out our products.

“We had to create a theme, which is Bounty of the Inland Northwest. We all come from different backgrounds, so what really connected us was our location in Spokane; so we wanted to highlight local ingredients, local culture.”

After the state win, the group began to perfect their menu with a few tweaks for nationals, Everman-Jones added. Even the starter is hefty: “Morel Forest” with shaved asparagus, morel mushrooms, green garlic pesto, pickled shallots, pecorino Romano and chiffonade basil.

Instead of an electric blender, Everman-Jones used a hand-crank blender to complete the pesto.

Their entrée has spring steelhead fillet, citrus salad, morel rice pilaf, charred tomato romesco and poblano cream.

To improve the dessert of huckleberry frybread, German went into Wild Sage during spring break to learn from a cook how to perfect using isomalt sugar substitute for a “glass” appearance as a topper, along with whipped cream.

The two-year ProStart culinary program fits into a longtime goal for Wilbur, who plans to be a chef.

“When I was a kid, I had a little plastic kitchen and I’d make food for my mom,” she said. “Any time I was around food, I was so excited. It’s the whole reason I’m at North Central. I was supposed to go to Shadle Park, but I found out about the class here.”

Khadka learned cooking skills from her mom, who grew up in India. Her dad was a child in Bhutan but moved at 12 to Nepal, where she was born. She said the family came to the U.S. around 2012. Khadka is the team’s secret “blender” tool, Garth Hicks said, being so fast with cutting.

Watching a digital clock on a large screen, the students yelled out steps completed, so the rest of the team knew the progress or to move to next steps. They called out when moving a hot dish, and the team at times problem-solved.

One misstep to make the whipped cream with a cooking tool called a siphon pushed the practice time past the hour by about 12 minutes, because someone had to make simple syrup on the spot. They also had to put out a brief flame flare-up as the steelhead cooked.

Hicks watched the team problem-solve, to give feedback later from a judge’s perspective. His son is a student there, and he began volunteer coaching for the North Central culinary team about four years ago. The ProStart contest is filmed and packed full of challenges, he said.

“It’s pretty intense,” Hicks said. “There is a lot of energy at nationals, lots of cheering. There is a ballroom there that will probably have 1,000 people.”

He said the North Central teammates put in roughly 150 hours in practices and preparation, including the contest’s thick booklet of menu information, costs and photos.

Hicks has seen North Central come close with state wins before. “Our nemesis being the teams on the West Side have better resources,” he said.

Because of the national contest’s Northwest-specific ingredients, he plans to fly with at least the morels and frozen steelhead in his carry-on luggage to ensure that the students have what they need.

Prior to the hour-long contest, students are allowed 20 minutes for “mise en place,” a French culinary phrase that means getting everything in its place. In this short segment, all the teams are allowed to pre-measure only eight ingredients: flour, sugar, salt, pepper, butter, cream of tartar, oil and baking powder.

Equipment is stored in a six-tiered steel “speed rack,” in about a 10-by-10-foot kitchen space. The students work off of two 8-foot tables.

Stewart said the ProStart curriculum is geared to the restaurant industry’s standards, and she has two full classes during school hours. The four students who make up the competition team are doing the contest work as an afterschool group.

Hicks on Thursday brought in Alexa Wilson, former Wild Sage chef and now a restaurant consultant. Wilson gave the team advice before and after practice.

“Stick to your guns when you make mistakes, and there will be mistakes in this industry,” Wilson said. “It’s just food.”

She also encouraged them to learn from mistakes, introduce ideas and ask questions.

Khadka plans on becoming an elementary school teacher but may share her skills in the classroom, she said.

German thinks her skills will be an advantage in college for a side job. Everman-Jones plans to be a food scientist to create new and improved foods but appreciates that the ProStart program trains professionals for food services.

“They’re preparing you for the restaurant industry,” Everman-Jones said. “They’re trying to replicate that, however crudely, because you will have electricity. But you have to cost your menu and do other work to prepare. There is a huge part of the competition that is not cooking.”